Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation
Feedback

Global Affairs Blog

How Can US Foreign Policy Address Child Marriage?

This post is written In honor of International Day of the Girl Child.

 



Earlier in the year, on International Women’s Day, The United Nations announced an initiative to end child marriage by 2030. If nothing is done to accelerate change, women married as children will reach one billion by 2030.  While child marriage is well-documented as a heinous crime against girls, from a development perspective, addressing the causes of child marriage will be more expedient than addressing the consequences of child marriage: vulnerability to violence, maternal mortality, HIV Aids, and feminization of poverty, among others. As we mark the first year after nations committed to a new development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals, ending early child marriage must be defined as both a women’s rights issue and a development imperative.

The reauthorization of the US Violence against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013 provided another tool in the arsenal in the war against child marriage. Combating child marriage is now an integral part of US foreign policy. The law calls for directives to the US Secretary of State to develop and implement a plan to prevent child marriage, promote empowerment of girls at risk of early marriage, and target countries where a high prevalence of child marriage is known to occur.

The VAWA now requires that the State Department include the rate of child marriage in its country status reports. In 2012, Archbishop Tutu and Graça Machel of The Elders called upon the United States to make combating child marriage a foreign policy goal. As they argued in the Washington Post “Without tackling child marriage, the US government cannot hope to achieve its development ambitions.”

Then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to “intensify our diplomacy and development work to end child marriage” and built powerful moral authority for this promise by revealing that combating child marriage was a “personal commitment” of hers. In the US several states allow girls to get married as young as 12 with the permission of the court. With no minimum age requirement for marriage,Massachusetts and Virginia are battleground states for overturning these laws.

If the US is to tackle child marriage, one of the important first steps would be to help bring its own laws in compliance with the minimum age of marriage for both men and women as affirmed in international treaties. An equally important step is to ratify the international conventions which speak to the minimum age of marriage. 

An interlocking reading of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) call for full and free consent in marriage. The CEDAW Committee in General Recommendation 21 (Article 16.2) states unequivocally that “the minimum age for marriage should be 18 years for both man and woman.”…marriage should not be permitted before they have attained full maturity and capacity to act.

The US government is alone with South Sudan in resisting the ratification of the CRC and is one of a handful of countries, along with Iran that is yet to ratify the CEDAW. The ratification of these treaties will bolster the US’s efforts combat child marriage as part of its foreign and domestic policy.    

Many countries, like several states in the United States have no minimum age of marriage.  Saudi Arabia and Yemen too lack a minimum age of marriage.  Even in countries that enshrine a minimum age of marriage, the consent of the guardian or the court to grant permission for child marriage provides a legal loophole that clearly undermines any good faith effort to harmonize national laws with international conventions.   Iran’s minimum age of marriage in accordance with Civil Code 2007 is “full thirteen solar years in the case of girls and full fifteen solar years in the case of boys is subject to the permission of the tutor and conditional upon the observance of the good of the pupil as determined by competent court.” In Afghanistan too although the legal age of marriage is 16 and the marriage of a female less than 15 is prohibited, an exception is allowed with the permission of the father and the court. 

If the US is to influence the governments of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, it needs to ensure that its own laws comply with international treaties and that international treaties are respected by all, including the US. 

 

______________________________________________________________________________________
Rangita de Silva de Alwis is the Associate Dean of International Affairs, at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her report to UNICEF on Child Marriage and the Law has helped law reform initiatives.  

 

 

Related News

  • May 22
    By: Engy Abdelkader, JD, LL.M.
    The United Nations (UN) has long characterized the Rohingya as the world’s most persecuted population. Historically, the Burmese viewed the ethnic and religious minority as illegal immigrants permitted entry by their former British colonizers. Such historical context informs contemporary views of the group as “foreigners.” And that has helped justify decades-long persecution by both private and public actors culminating in the Rohingya’s legal exclusion as citizens and other discrimination codified as law. Despite the group’s pre-colonial ancestral ties to the land, messaging that Rohingya are “outsiders,” “Bengalis” and even, “terrorists,” has helped the government justify mass atrocity crimes. The current humanitarian and human rights crises also implicate national security.
  • May 1
    By: Shane Fischman, L’19
    It is a timely issue of resonance and consequence, the confluence of a class of committed students and an engaging Professor of unparalleled expertise. Our vigorous classroom discussions sounded more like policy debates and revolutionary cries than staid academic deliberation We represented a handful of different countries and states, a global array of religious, cultural, and economic backgrounds. More like a weekly conference than a class, we spent our two hours every Tuesday afternoon in friendly arguments— was it enough to have women at the table, or have people been ignoring a critical variable in the equation, having the right women at the table? And if that is the case, then how do we ensure women in the international community were prepared to lead? And is the top-down approach to securing women’s rights effective, or is that method only paying lip-service to the women living in rural villages who are legally barred from accessing capital to run a business and from attaining a passport without a male guardian’s permission?
  • March 27
    By: Kimberly Panian, L’18
    This year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) proved to be a historic one where member states gathered to discuss the substantial progress made in favor of gender equality. While each country addressed areas still in need of work, each event of the CSW offered an inspirational promise of hope. The excitement was palpable whenever discussing the significant progress already made—how women’s voices have been amplified and legitimized through legal reform and political activism.